The Worst Beat Down: Guiding and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Words by Idaho Guide Kyle Smith

Photography by Idaho Guide Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

“Read and Run”: A Plan Gone Awry

I stared at the deer entrails splayed on the ice, glistening in the reflection of my headlights. The scene must have been a thing to behold from afar — though at 2 a.m. on an icy night in middle-of-nowhere Utah, there was no one around to behold this mess. I laughed maniacally in disbelief there in that cold, empty place, thinking maybe the universe was telling me I should just call it.

I got back in my truck and continued driving, my eyes puffy from tears. The snowy mountains shrunk to nothing but sad memories in my rearview mirror as I rolled back toward southern Idaho, a place that I thought I wouldn’t revisit for some time. I was going back home.

The deer I’d killed was just icing on a cake of disappointments that had defined the past four days. I received a speeding ticket, my girlfriend broke up with me and, after getting towed for parking illegally in an empty lot, I’d watched $450 circle the drain as I handed it over to get my truck out of the impound. $450 was a third of my bank account. That weekend’s rendezvous was supposed to be the start of my great post-college winter adventure in the mountains — the start of a new phase of life. Needless to say, the adventure hadn’t worked out as planned.

Nothing was working out like I’d planned. The universe was giving me a serious lesson in redirection. I was reading and running, if you will. After guiding river trips all summer and graduating from college the following winter, I was finally free to pursue my dream of dirtbaggery. I was entering the unknown — living out of my truck, paddling, skiing, mountain biking, basking in the glory of whatever life would bring me. Surely it would be amazing. I was hopelessly optimistic and loving every minute of it. Until I wasn’t.

In a matter of moments, my grandiose post-college vision had been turned on its head. The timing was all wrong. Now, with nothing to show but lint in my pockets, stinging tears and a completely destroyed bumper complemented with deer guts, it was time to do what no college graduate ever dreams of doing. It was either that or swerve my truck into an oncoming semi.

I barely had enough gas money to get home, but I soon found myself living in my parents’ basement surrounded by the blue camouflage wallpaper I’d picked out in sixth grade. What ecosystem required blue camouflage anyway? My energy level was low and the bitter grayness outside wasn’t helping. This was worse than the time I nearly flush drowned while kayaking the Kern River. I would gladly have relived that beatdown — the scariest two minutes of my life — if it could have gotten me out of my slump. Instead, I just slogged through my days. It was hard to get out of bed most mornings. I felt as though I had to start each day by climbing out of a hole. It wasn’t that I had just gotten my heart broken, it was more that nothing had gone as I had planned.

In the past, as summers came to an end and the bitter winters seeped in, I’d often struggle with what I called seasonal “funk” but this was another level. I found myself asking questions that had never even crossed my mind in the past. Was this just the way I was? Was this hereditary? How does one go about getting out of this pit? I’d never been as beat down before and had no clue where to find the exit.

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

“Smells Like a Booty Beer”: The Seasonal Funk

I had always been affected, as many in the active recreational community are, by seasonal depression. I call it seasonal funk but as I would come to find out later, it’s known among health care professionals as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Looking back on it now, I don’t think I was truly an extreme victim to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I was young, fresh out of college, and my glorious plans were re-arranged faster than you can say, “throw bag me.” But, it gave me insight into a feeling of drowning in a hole of depression that was difficult to extract myself from. Seasonal Affective Disorder is something which many in the recreational community, particularly the guiding community, suffer from each year. Seasonal Affective Disorder often comes with the onset of winter, the loss of stable income and no longer working in a field of passionate meaning. My experience that winter gave me insight into a very real medical condition.

Leading an active lifestyle promotes positive physical and mental health. Ironically, those that participate in the most active lifestyles, those that are often the healthiest individuals in our society, are often exposed to the lowest incomes and highest likelihoods of injury. Guiding for many is about being outdoors, exposed to the therapy of healthy lifestyles. It often, however, comes at a cost of living without health care and is accompanied by menial incomes that fall well below the poverty level.

Being in school had always given me an out from the harsher realities of the seasonal lifestyle. In school I had academics, drinking beers with buddies, wapping ping pong balls, ogling girls and, if the weather patterns were kind enough to bless our little mountain just outside of town, some low angle ski laps. I was usually full of energy and excited to get outside and play. Now, I was broke, alone and had nothing to do. I had known situational poverty many times before — being broke was nothing new. What was new to me was the latter. I became nervous that this was the new me. I anticipated the winter would be dark, if I made it through. Little did I know, boating would save my life that season and provide me with the different perspective I needed.

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

“Throw Bag Me”: Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

That dark winter in the blue camouflage room it was difficult to speak with friends or family that were expecting to see a happy, confident, strong me. That was the “me” that I knew and loved. I didn’t care much for this new sad impostor living in my skin, invading all of my thoughts. I wanted who I thought was the real me back. That Kyle wasn’t available and I wanted to deal with it alone. I came to realize, however, this was an unrealistic idea.

There were other guides; amazing, jovial and more gregarious than I, that were dealing with similar and more intense issues than me. That same winter that I lay staring at blue wallpaper, the guiding world was struck with the sad news of an Idaho guide that had taken his own life after fighting a long internal battle of depression. “Telly [Evans] was a dedicated Middle Fork of the Salmon guide, a legendary interpreter of the wilderness, and a compassionate friend to all. Sadly, behind his generous smile and unyielding passion, Telly hid a pain that would eventually steal him from the river and friends he loved.” That winter, it became apparent to many that Seasonal Affective Disorder was a very real thing in the guiding/recreational community. One of the most well-known and loved guides among the river community was ripped from the lives of friends and family that year. This tragic event brought awareness to the lack of support for the recreational community and called for a new way of thinking about health. The Reside Foundation did not exist yet as I sat in my doldrums contemplating the meaning of my life.

Everyday I glanced at my boat leaning against the shed, collecting frost. I finally embraced my situation and slinked out of the basement. I found an open kayak pool session at the local YMCA where I could focus more on flat-water freestyle tricks than on being stranded in my home town. I tossed my kayak in the truck with it’s expensive new bumper and headed to the pool. Paddling, even in flat water, helped me to clear my mind. It is probably my least favorite way to spend time in my boat, but still, I was in my boat. I rubbed shoulders with some of the local paddlers. I mingled, a difficult task when anti-social tendencies are the norm for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Trick after trick, I tried to work things out in my head. No epiphany was coming.  

As I was about to walk out into the cold March night air, feeling just as confused as when I had entered the pool, the “Mayor of the Malad” entered my non-existent social scene. He was a big, burly looking character with all the gracefulness of an albatross. As we chatted, I explained my living situation, leaving out any details that would allude to the idea that I wasn’t really here of my own accord. I didn’t want to look too dejected in front of this ‘Andre the Giant’.

“The Murtah is running,” he said.
“It’s like 7 degrees out right now!” I replied.
“You can borrow one of my drysuits if you’d like.”

I curiously examined the 6’4”, 220lb frame towering above me.

“Uh, no I’ve got one. Thanks.”

That winter I paddled the Murtah, a section of the Snake River, nearly every day. My self-loathing receded with every wave train and surf session. As odd as it seemed, this was the therapy that I had needed all along. The negative thoughts grew more distant with each river lap. The days grew longer and the flora began to return as ice melted away. I processed my thoughts while on the water and sometimes paid the price of inattentive paddling. Spring finally came and I broke away in search of every piece of flowing water I could find. I ran to surround myself with a healthy group of friends, including those that I had made throughout the winter, still some of my best friends to this day. I explored the deserts of the Owyhee and creeks hidden in Southern Idaho’s agricultural land. I kept a journal, a great tool for clearing the head. I learned more about myself in those few months than I knew was possible. Maybe I got some insight into what some people feel all of the time. My thought process turned from self-doubt into something along the lines of, "Well, if I can make it through that, I bet I could make it through some intensely testing experiences in other parts of my life."

Nobody is impervious when it comes to depression. Since that winter, I have had multiple friends with similar issues of differing intensity. It has become apparent that as seasons ebb and flow, depression is an ongoing issue throughout the boating community. Some are better than others at dealing with it and very few want to admit that they are having a hard time in the first place, especially those that appear the most outgoing and gregarious. Living in a ski town this winter, I realized that Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn’t only touch the summer recreation community, but all those that are faced with losing their outlet of passion as it pertains to the season. The entire attitude of a mountain town or a river town ebbs and flows with the weather patterns.

There is a list provided by the Mayo Clinic for combating the seasonal funk.  Suggestions include making ones environment brighter. This includes vitamin D lights, getting outside when the sun is shining, or, as I have done before, fly the coop to sunnier locations like Chile, Mexico, or New Zealand. This solution is a little tricky if you have any sort of lifestyle stability, or live paycheck to paycheck. I wish health insurance would pay to fill my prescriptions for travel. It also helps to find someone to talk to, especially friends, family, or colleagues that understand what depression does on a deeper level.

Here are some tips from my own personal meandering experience:

  • Embrace a community of people that hold health, both mental and physical, as a priority.
  • Don’t say no to social invitations just because isolation sounds easier.
  • Substituting alcohol for discontent is a recipe for disaster and much darker places.
  • Our friends are there to lean on, not just to recreate with.
  • Write or create. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just put pen to paper or brush to canvas and let your creativity flow. Most of my writing is mind vomit, but sometimes it is liberating to articulate your thoughts.
  • If it is too cold to go outside, get that gym membership… and USE IT. Don’t solely rely on rivers to bring joy, but embrace them while they flow.
  • Wear sunscreen.

It’s not easy for a gregarious river guide to admit when they feel low. I write this in hope that it will bring awareness to an issue that is, for the most part, not openly discussed. Depression seems to get buried, swept under the rug, or shrugged off, as if it is a choice that people make. If you think you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or depression, or you have friends or loved ones that you think might be suffering, talk to someone. Don’t wait until the person in question, whether it’s you or a friend, has been beat down in the hole of depression for longer than our metaphorical lungs can afford.

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

Seth Dahl, Big Cedar Media

Guides and the Redside Community - how do you take care of your mental health during your off-season? We'd love to hear your insights, tools and ideas in the comments.

Additional Depression & Seasonal Affective Disorder Resources